Looking for a business-friendly city to launch a local or global venture? Then look south to Invercargill where Digital Stock owner Avinash Varghese is one of a new generation of talented Southland-based entrepreneurs looking to make a difference.
By Glenn Baker
OK, you may be forgiven for not having Invercargill at the top of your list of places to set up business. For an Aucklander especially, and with apologies to Stewart Island, it’s about as ‘down under’ as you can get.
But what you’re about to read may genuinely surprise you.
Nobody was more surprised by Invercargill than Avinash (Nash) Varghese, when he immigrated to the city as a 17-year-old with his family from the “beautiful chaos” of India’s Mumbai in 2002.
One can only imagine the culture shock!
But the Varghese family had little time to ponder the dramatic change of scenery – they had a living to make.
Nash’s father quickly built a successful property management company, and his son was his first employee.
However, Nash’s real passion was IT. He’d been interested in programming since he was eight years old. Not surprisingly, coming from the Bollywood capital of the world, in addition to IT he also studied film at the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT).
When his father passed away in 2012, Nash was forced to decide between keeping the family business running or following his dream of his own IT business.
As it turns out, he managed to do both. After growing the property management company (he recently added on real estate sales with Pride Realty) he diversified by finding, and investing in, local IT teams.
One of those teams was a couple of SIT students, Will Finlayson and Josh Dean, who’d developed a website to crowd-source small jobs called JobIt. It was Nash’s first step towards finding his own team of collaborators. It also prompted him to look at what local mentoring programmes there were for IT start-ups in Invercargill. He discovered there were none. Invercargill was a city built on traditional businesses.
Nash attended a Start-up Weekend in Dunedin and came back fired up.
“I suddenly realised the power of collaboration and how much I enjoyed working with my teams back at work,”
Together with his friend XingDong Yan, CEO of local chartered accountancy practice JCCA, Nash set up Innov8 Invercargill, with the goal of encouraging people who weren’t happy in their jobs to start their own businesses.
“We would provide them with as much support and connections as we could, and I travelled around the country to learn as much about start-ups as possible.
“It became obvious to me that start-up businesses aren’t nurtured very well in regional centres,” he says. “For technology-focused start-ups there’s no reason for this. With ultra-fast broadband (UFB) a business can literally be based anywhere and be successful.”
In 2013 Nash set up Digital Stock, a tech start-up, along with Southland-based IT graduates and best mates, Will Finlayson and Jim Dowling.
Digital Stock initially targeted the “low-hanging” website market, but after quickly realising its revenue limitations, moved on to software development and started picking up clients in the main centres.
Today, the business has three full-time developers, two part-time developers, a designer, project manager and Nash as GM. He also frequently travels the country to meet existing or potential clients.
The benefits of operating a business out of Invercargill are painfully obvious when you’re running a business there.
For a start, Nash pays around $10K to rent his office, which includes power, Internet, rates and insurance. In short – the city’s affordable.
But it’s the emotional side of the business where the difference really counts, he says.
For example, commuting is far less stressful than say Auckland. “Compare an employee’s frame of mind at the start of the day in Auckland, compared to a regional city like Invercargill.”
He says none of his colleagues carry the stresses or worries of living in a big city, and with the relaxed office environment at Digital Stock, Nash reckons job satisfaction is extremely high, while ‘emotional downtime’ is minimal.
Finding suitable employees has not been a problem either, says Nash. They did have a job applicant from Dunedin who wouldn’t move to Invercargill, but he says local SIT students make great employees. “Often the smartest programmers come straight out of high school. We’d even hired a 16-year-old. He had already developed an app that had attracted 100,000 downloads on the Android Play Store.”
Nash says in 2017 they plan to triple or quadruple the Digital Stock team. That will require a massive employment drive. But with the excellent schools, cheap housing ($220K buys you a house in a good part of town) and sunny climate, he doesn’t anticipate any problems.
“People come here for the lifestyle. They come here if they already have a job, or want to create jobs. The goal of everyone I collaborate with here is to create jobs.”
He knows of local Internet-based enterprises that are doing well, aided by the fact that courier and freight charges are cheaper when going from South to North, thanks to unused onboard capacity.
Having access to ultra-fast broadband is another means of levelling the playing field when competing with big companies in the main centres. And Nash questions the way Auckland is promoted as a great place to set up business hubs; by attracting more people to the city, you’re only adding to the traffic congestion, he believes.
From where he’s sitting, Auckland’s problems have an incredibly negative effect on opportunity and productivity.
And don’t believe for a minute that Invercargill’s business community is made up of just old fuddy-duddies. Nash has noticed a definite “changing of the guard” over recent years, particularly in professional firms. For young graduates looking to get a fast start up the corporate ladder, Southland’s capital is definitely the place to be, he says.
Add to that the fact that Invercargill is an easy place to do business and sell ideas, then why, asks Nash, wouldn’t you operate from anywhere else?
Looking ahead he’s keen to expand his business interests. “I can see myself initiating more change in this town.”
It’s all about improving the place even more, he says, and attracting more quality people to work with the talented locals.